Stereotypes Lead Boys to Prefer Drums to Violins

April 25, 2002 -- By the time he's reached the ripe old age of 5, if you ask a boy to decide which musical instrument he would like to play, most likely he'll head straight for the drums. Ask a girl, and she's more likely to pick up a flute, or a violin.

Almost from the beginning, our sexual stereotypes have become so entrenched that they influence nearly everything we do, from the sports we play to the instruments we study to the careers we finally pick.

A recent study reaffirmed that young boys are far more likely to pick instruments generally considered "male," like drums, the trumpet or the saxophone, and girls will pick "feminine" instruments, like the violin, clarinet or flute. That's not particularly surprising, because other studies found similar results in the 1970s.

But what is a bit surprising is that despite advances in reducing sexism in society, the stereotypes we embrace as children are just about as strong today as they were decades ago.

Girl Roles Not As Rigid

"I was quite surprised to see that these stereotypes still existed," says Betty Repacholi, a research associate in the University of Washington's Center for Mind, Brain & Learning.

Repacholi and her former student, Samantha Pickering of the University of Sydney in Australia, reported their findings in the current issue of the journal Sex Roles.

The researchers, who studied more than 600 kindergarten and fourth-grade Australian children over the past couple of years, found that it's far easier for a little girl to break away from the stereotypes and pick a masculine instrument than it is for a little boy to pick up that violin.

Some boys do, of course, and many of the true masters of that instrument are men, perhaps indicating that gender is far less important as the inner muse takes over on the road to excellence. But in those early years, it can be really tough for a little guy to pick up his violin case instead of a football and head off to school. That's not what boys are supposed to do.

"The worst thing that's likely to happen [to a girl who wants to play the tuba] is she will be called a tomboy," Repacholi says. And having masculine traits might be considered an asset even by children because they probably notice that males, more often than not, rule the roost.

"But for boys," Repacholi says, "there's nothing positive associated with displaying feminine qualities."

In other words, it might not sting as much for a girl to be called a tomboy as it does for a boy to be called a sissy. So girls, the study suggests, make the break more easily than boys, at least in the short term.

Drums vs. Flutes

For their research, Repacholi and Pickering, who plays three so-called "feminine" instruments, set up a series of tests. Eight instruments that had previously been classified by gender were used in the study. Flute, violin, clarinet and cello are considered feminine, and drums, saxophone, trumpet and trombone are classified as male.

There are, of course, a whole range of instruments whose sexuality is less clear, but researchers tend to classify powerful, physically demanding instruments as male, and lighter, delicate instruments as female. Before going too far down that road, let's concede that we all have problems with some of those classifications, but the eight chosen for the study are widely accepted in the research community because of the numbers of persons from each sex who learn to play the instruments.

In the first of several studies, children were shown videotapes of the instruments as they were played by eight male and eight female high school students. The children were separated into three groups. One group saw the "male" instruments played by boys, and the "female" instruments played by girls. The second saw that situation reversed, with boys playing the violin, for example, and girls playing the drums. The third group heard the music, but never saw who was playing.

The first group had no trouble picking the "appropriate" instrument for their gender. The girls picked up the violins and the flutes, and the guys really loved those drums.

But when children were subjected to "counter-stereotype" examples, in which boys were seen playing the girls' instruments, and vice versa, it had a major effect on the girls, but not the boys. About 70 percent of the girls picked the masculine instruments, Repacholi says, while only about 25 percent of the boys were willing to opt for the female instruments.

She thinks that change was likely temporary, and probably disappeared within a day or so, but she regards it as an indication that girls are more likely to abandon gender-based biases than boys.

Other parts of the study suggest that the stereotyping tends to diminish with age. Kindergarten girls, for example, were far less likely to select a male instrument than were fourth graders.

So what does it all mean?

Subtle Influences

Repacholi says it means that children are still being molded in such a way as to produce and nurture gender-based stereotypes. Some of it comes from their peers, she says, but much of it undoubtedly comes from their parents. And in many cases it's probably very subtle.

A mother, she suggests, may not even know that when she thrusts a violin into the hands of her daughter she is making a statement about gender. She may simply think she is trying to avoid a set of drums.

But a violin is no more "female" than a drum is "male." We only see it as such because our view of the world is so influenced by gender. After all, it's one of the first things we notice.

The study indicates that with a little effort, sexual stereotyping can be overcome. People like Itzhak Perlman have proved it. Aren't you glad he had the courage to pick up that violin instead of a set of drums?

My guess is it's been a long, long time since anyone called him a sissy.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.